Turning the food system around to achieve inclusive nutrition security
Food availability and access alone are not enough to realize nutrition security. To improve what the Dutch food security agenda contributes to the global goal of reducing hunger and malnutrition, future policy should shift focus. Moving the spotlight away from production and towards consumption and nutrition could be a major step forward. When we take consumers’ needs and desires seriously and design programmes based on a holistic, coherent-but-reversed local food system analysis, we can make structural gains in the Dutch food security policy’s contribution to reduce malnutrition.
Although Dutch food security policy has invested much towards augmenting agricultural production resulting in increased incomes for many farmers, the assumed effects on nutrition of local consumers were reviewed by the IOB as “not straightforward”. The session discussion about this subject explored two propositions: to shift policy focus from the producer to the consumer in designing food security interventions and to always do a food systems analysis at the country level in view of reducing hunger and malnutrition.
Shift policy focus from the producer to the consumer
The first proposition gained general support from participants. Many agreed when Peter Oosterveer suggested to “turn the food system around” in the food security policy approach. He proposed looking at consumption as the starting point of the food system and ending with corresponding interventions, for example in agricultural production. The starting point should also be diet, not nutrients, because “people do not eat nutrients, they eat meals”. Niek van Dijk (from BoP Innovation Center) agreed and also stressed the importance of consumer behaviour. The consumer should not be taken as a passive person in need of food, but rather as an active person with specific preferences, who makes decisions about what food to eat.
Marijke de Graaf recommended ensuring all people are included, especially those “hanging in” subsistence farming and who are the most food insecure. She and other participants underlined that this encompasses other interventions than those within value chains, such as improvements in infrastructure, land rights or governance – corresponding with the IOB conclusion that investments in an enabling environment were often more inclusive for poor farmers. In this ‘leave no one behind” framework, Peter Oosterveer brought attention to the growing urban population, arguing that more knowledge of urban food systems is needed in order to include the urban poor and malnourished in food policy. Noortje Verhart (KIT Royal Tropical Institute) explained that to address malnutrition within households, gender in intra-household food decisions needs to be better understood, corresponding with conclusions in the IOB evaluation about socially and culturally determined misconceptions and habits at the household level.
Always do a food systems analysis at the country level
The panel also quickly established agreement on the second proposition. All agreed that without a proper food system analysis at the country or even local level, agricultural development interventions would not be very effective in reducing hunger or malnutrition. The analysis would include clarifying the type of nutrition problems that occur in a specific situation, such as a lack of calories, a lack of micronutrients or over-nutrition resulting in obesity. Saskia Osendarp expressed concern that the results framework of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MinFA) contains a lot of assumptions. She gave the example of a case in Bangladesh where it was assumed that better household nutrition would be realized if farmers produced more, but results showed differently. While scrutinizing several assumptions in this regard, panellists and participants shared experiences and examples, such as the example of commercial potato farmers in Rwanda whose nutritional status actually decreased. Participants also made suggestions for how lessons learned could be put to use to for a better realization of inclusive nutrition security.
Participants then said that for food policies to be effective, programmes need to be more nutrition sensitive by setting clear and realistic goals. Programmes should be realistic about what they can change, such as the intake of diverse foods instead of child stunting rates. Also, since addressing nutrition security is more complex than agricultural production alone, and programme scalability and sustainability is needed, the importance of a holistic food system approach is a logical conclusion. Yar Deng (Netherlands embassy in South Sudan) emphasized the importance of a context analysis: in his in-conflict region, where 60% of the population is hungry, food availability and stability are priorities and food production would be the first intervention. In other contexts, however, other priorities may arise. Saskia Osendarp (Netherlands Working Group on international Nutrition) noted that gender, women empowerment and behavioural change all require additional interventions that can substantially increase the effectiveness of a programme. Frits van der Wal (MinFA) added that a lot can be learnt from the practice of making existing projects more nutrition sensitive, such as a palm oil project in Ghana that added a nutrition component.
There was some fear expressed from attendees that a holistic approach would be too heavy for one project and that this would lead to less attention to agriculture. The conclusion was that the analysis needs to be holistic but that the chosen interventions may be focused and could well include nutrition-sensitive agriculture. An interesting concept in this respect is co-location – working with different stakeholders (local government, private sector, development partners, etc) in the same area with the same beneficiaries – resulting in synergy between interventions.
All in all, the need for a holistic food system analysis (with ample opportunities for co-location and synergy) that puts the food insecure consumer centre-stage was seen as a promising way forward to realize inclusive Food and Nutrition Security. To facilitate this, it is important that actors at the policy and implementation front reach common ground and have practical tools to efficiently describe food systems at different levels and to design appropriate action based on it. In his closing remarks, IOB evaluator Ferko Bodnár noted that he observed a slight discomfort amongst participants that future food security programmes could not just keep working on agricultural production, even though the Dutch may have been good at doing so. He then concluded that “it is due time to reframe goals from a nutrition perspective and to shift away from the production focus we may have been comfortable with”.
Breakout session 1: food and nutrition security (and inclusiveness)
Facilitator: Ferko Bodnár (IOB)
- Peter Oosterveer (Wageningen University & Research)
- Marijke de Graaf (ICCO Cooperation)
- Saskia Osendarp (Netherlands Working Group on international Nutrition)